Defense wins championships, at least they still do for Division 2 football as evidenced by last season's champion Northwest Missouri who clobbered North Alabama's potent attack to the tune of a 29-3 finish.
But entering into the 2017 season, who looks to have the best defense this year? NW Missouri might be in the conversation down the road, but they lost a lot of key starters that could impact their success. Instead, we have five other candidates to vote upon and see who you at home believe is the best defense coming into the year.
Take a look at each candidate file below, and then vote in the poll afterwards. Voting will remain open until 1 p.m. ET on Friday, August 25.
Returning Starters: 8
Impact Returner: Jay Watkins, DB
2016 Points Allowed: 22.4
2016 Rushing Defense: 135.5
2016 Passing Defense: 229.5
IUP looks primed for a big jump into the elite echelon of defensive units in the country, as they return eight starters, including All-American defensive back Jay Watkins.
What will be key is for the Crimson Hawks to stop the run as they did in 2015 when they allowed just 104.3 yards per game, a significant difference from their 2016 totals. The tests for their defense will come early and often, as IUP opens up against Ashland and their potent aerial attack led by Travis Tarnowski.
But by the end of the season, this unit should be elite. As for now, they are definitely on the cusp and might even be the best on paper heading into the year.
Returning Starters: 3
Impact Returner: Malik Slater, LB
2016 Points Allowed: 24.36
2016 Rushing Defense: 159.9
2016 Passing Defense: 196.55
V-State loses a big group of talent — some to the NFL — but should still be one of the better groups in the country with the returners they have. One key cog that is coming back is Malik Slater, a rising senior linebacker who should help with communication along the front seven that replaces a handful of members.
A national-best 27 interceptions in 2016 should help inspire some motivation to the new swarm who looks to match or even best that total. While that will be hard to accomplish, Gulf South teams know that Kerwin Bell's defensive backfield will be tough to navigate, and should lead the Blazers back into the national playoffs.
Returning Starters: 6
Impact Returner: Devonte Dillion
2016 Points Allowed: 16.09
2016 Rushing Defense: 118.5
2016 Passing Defense: 174.73
AIC returns a majority of their starters from a 2016 team that was ninth in total defense for D2 in 2016. A huge loss in the secondary of DaQuan Holmes will need to be filled, but playmakers exist all over to make up for production lost to the NFL prospect.
One area that could use some improvement are sacks, with just 28 a year ago. AIC won one game last year by the score of 3-0, and also lost a close contest 5-3 just a few weeks later. The defense is definitely no issue for the Jackets, and should be considered one of the best in the nation. If that offense comes around though, watch out for this team to sting with surprise.
Returning Starters: 5
Impact Returner: Dale Irby
2016 Points Allowed: 15.1
2016 Rushing Defense: 111.5
2016 Passing Defense: 186.0
Ashland is a big-time contender for the GLIAC title this year because of their offense, but their defense is not to be forgotten as they look to capitalize off a big season in which they consistently dominated their opponents.
29 sacks can be raised a little bit, but the dominance against the run proved that the front seven is no issue for the Purple-and-Yellow. I can count at least four teams that will give this unit a major test, both at the beginning and end of the year, and then we will know whether Ashland is truly an elite defensive unit.
Returning Starters: 7
Impact Returner: Ch'Aim Smith
2016 Points Allowed: 18.1
2016 Rushing Defense: 97.5
2016 Passing Defense: 202.7
West Chester is a bounce-back candidate this year from the PSAC, and should be treated as the favorite to represent the Eastern division in the PSAC Title Game. Why? Because their defense is ready to jump into the upper tier of units in the game and lead them back to glory.
Defensive line is the biggest reason for optimism, with five players with starting experience coming back to anchor the run defense that limited teams under 100 per game. The secondary might lack true starters coming back, but they still have talent returning that are ready to step up.
You heard it here first: West Chester is about to do big things on defense. But are they the best going into the year? Only your votes will let us know.